West Meets East: An American in Japan
From Buddhas to ice cream, a Colorado native living in Japan explores the sights and culture of the land of the rising sun.
By Josiah Lebowitz
Thursday, January 27, 2011
Japan is the only country in the world to still have a ruling emperor. In fact, the imperial line is said to have descended from the sun goddess Ameterasu over 2600 years ago in 660 BC. Even though there are some doubts that the imperial line began that early, it has been conclusively dated back over 1500 years, making it the world's oldest continuous hereditary monarchy. The current Emperor’s name is Akihito though Japanese people usually call him by generic titles that translate to things like 'His Majesty the Emperor' or 'His Current Majesty'. He resides in the Imperial Palace which is located in the center of Tokyo although for most of Japan's history the Emperor resided in Kyoto (which was also the capital of Japan back then).
According to the current law, when he dies, the emperor is succeeded by his oldest son. There were some female emperors in the past but current laws prohibit a daughter from taking the throne. Although there was some debate about that not too long ago when it looked like a mail heir might not be born.
Throughout history, the role and power of the emperor has varied considerably (ranging from pretty much total control of the government and army to virtually no control at all). For a lengthy period of time the emperor was nothing but a puppet for the Shogun (military commander). In fact, it was a Shogun who first moved the heart of Japanese government to Tokyo, leaving the emperor behind in Kyoto to show that he longer had an important role in running the country.
Power was restored to the emperor during the Meiji revolution (a reaction to the then current Shogun’s failure to keep Perry’s fleet out of Japan) though the Meiji Emperor relinquished much of that power to form Japan’s first democratic government in 1890 and the emperor’s power was further reduced after World War II. These days, the emperor has no real power and serves more as a figurehead than a politician.
While you can tour the old imperial palace in Kyoto (which I’ll probably talk about more in-depth in a future post), the palace in Tokyo is off limits except on the emperor’s birthday and a day or two right after new year’s, when the public is allowed to gather in one of the place’s courtyards to listen to an address from the emperor. The rest of the year, the best you can do is follow the moat around the perimeter, which passes through some nice gardens offers a few glimpses of the palace buildings.
Despite his lack of power, the emperor remains a very important figure to the Japanese people, serving as a role model and a symbol of the country’s long history and ancient traditions, much as England’s monarchy and may very well continue to do so for centuries to come.
By Josiah Lebowitz
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
So, no sooner do I announce my new schedule than I make my first mistake. It’s kind of easy to get your days mixed up when living on the other side of the international date line… Anyway, I’ve got everything straightened out now so it’s time for a travel and sightseeing related post.
For the most part, getting around in Japan is remarkably easy, though it’s done a bit differently than in the US. Here’s a look at Japan’s major types of transportation.
Japan’s main international airport is Narita Airport, which is around 40 minutes outside of Tokyo. If you’re flying from the US to Japan, it’s your most likely destination (though not the only one). Within Japan, most major cities and many popular tourist destinations across the country have airports. In Tokyo, for example, most local flights are handled at Heneda airport. Tickets for domestic flights often cost somewhere around 30,000 – 40,000 Yen (around $350 - $450 at the current exchange rate) though you can often get them for as low as 130,000 if you book far enough in advance via the Japan Airlines website (www.JAL.com). However, as Japan is a much smaller country than the US, there’s rarely a need to travel by plane unless you’re in a hurry or traveling between the extreme north and extreme south of the country.
2. Trains & Subways
These days in the US, trains are mostly used for hauling stuff across country. While passenger trains still exist, flying and driving are by far the more popular ways to get to where ever you're going. In Japan, on the other hand, trains are the preferred method of travel for a very large portion of the population. And despite the millions of people using them every day, the trains in Japan are perfectly safe, very clean, and almost always on time.
Japan has an extensive train system which covers most of the country. Unless you're in a town that's really really small and/or very hard to reach there's bound to be at least one train station and cities will often have at least several spread across their main areas.
Subways are similar to trains except that they’re only found in big cities and tend to offer much more comprehensive coverage than the local trains do. You’ll also find the odd monorail, cable car, and other railed vehicles, but they all operate in pretty much the same way.
For places that aren’t near train or subway stations, you have buses. As with trains, Japanese buses are safe, clean, and surprisingly punctual. Unfortunately, they tend to be the least English friendly form of public transportation in Japan so you really need to pay attention when place names are announced if you don’t want to miss your stop. Unless you’re moderately skilled at Japanese or have rode enough buses in Japan to get used to how they work, I recommend you only do so when you have very specific instructions on which bus to get on at which stop and where to get off.
Unless someone is waiting to be picked up, buses don’t stop at every station unless someone wants to get off there. To indicate where you want to get off, wait until your station is announced (meaning that it’s the next one) then push one of the many buttons scattered about the bus. It will ding and light up to let the driver and other passengers know that someone wants off.
Like trains, bus fares are often based on distance traveled. When you get on the bus, you grab a ticket from a machine that has the station number where you got on. Up front there will be an electronic board listing station numbers and prices. When you reach your destination, look at the price listed by your station number, that’s what you pay. Just put your ticket and the appropriate fare in the machine at the front of the bus when you exit. Not that bus fare machines don’t give change, though they do have a slot that can be used to change 1000 Yen bills into a good selection of coins. To make things simpler, some cities have flat rate buses that charge the same amount no matter how far you ride and/or sell unlimited bus passes that typically last for anywhere between one day and a week or so.
Taxies work much the same way as they do in the US (though they’re cleaner and more professional looking than many of the ones at home). The only things to be away of is that drivers often have a button that automatically opens the door for you and that, as with everything in Japan, you don’t tip.
No, normal Japanese cars don’t look like the ones in the picture. But between bikes and Japan’s excellent public transportation, many people have no need of cars of any kind. Combine that with the lengthy and expensive process required for Japanese people to get a driver’s license and it’s no surprise that many of them simple don’t drive at all.
If you’re interested in renting a car, be aware that Japanese drive on the left side of the road like England and Australia do. Also watch out for the narrow roads, very tight parking spaces, and toll roads (which there are a lot of when driving cross country). If you still want to give it a try, Japan accepts international driver’s licenses (available for a small fee at AAA). Though if you plan to stay in Japan for a long time, you’ll have to get a Japanese license (a process that deserves an entire post of its own sometime) after one year.
For people who don’t live right by the store, school, or train station, there’s bikes. Japanese bikes are usually single speed street bikes, often with baskets, lights, and bells (which are rarely used). Note that bikers usually ride on the sidewalk so try to stay on one side or the other to leave them room to pass.
And that covers the main ways to get around in Japan (though you will find a few out of the way areas that use a lot of boats). If you’re going on vacation, I’d recommend sticking with the public transportation (especially the trains and subways) unless you’re going to somewhere why out in the middle of nowhere. Save planes for long trips where time is of the essence and don’t worry about cars and bikes unless you plan to live in Japan.
By Josiah Lebowitz
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
When it comes to Japan, I've got a lot to talk about so to make it easier for me to choose subjects and easier for you to find the things you're most interseted in, I'm going to assign a schedule of sorts to this blog. Here it is:
Monday: Daily Life (Thing relating to daily life in Japan such as housing, shopping, groceries, etc)
Tuesday & Wednesday: Travel Tips and Sightseeing (Travel tips and info on the best stuff to see and do in Japan.)
Thursday: Japanese Culture (Things about Japnese culture such as history, religion, holidays, mannerisms, etc.)
Friday: Food (Things about all the interesting types of food you can find in Japan.)
And now for today's daily life themed entry.
Trying to find a building in Japan with nothing to go off of but its address is an interesting experience, to say the least. For an example, here’s the address of Sakura House, a Tokyo based company that specializes in renting apartments to foreigners on a month by month basis. Note that, to make this easier to follow, the address has been written in English instead of Japanese.
Nishi-Shinjuku K1 Bldg.
7-2-6, Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
The first and second lines are simple enough, as they just list the building name and floor, but it’s the rest of the address that we’re concerned about. What you want to do now is look it in reverse order (which is how it would be written in Japanese).
1. The number beginning with 160 is the zip code and, as such, is really only of any use to postal workers.
2. Tokyo is the name of the prefecture (think state or county). If you were wondering, Tokyo prefecture is made up of the greater Tokyo city area.
3. Tokyo, like some big US cities (and all but the smallest Japanese towns) is divided into various smaller cities (like how New York City has Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the like), called ku. Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s ku.
4. Ku are further divided up into smaller “towns”. The building we’re looking for is in the Nishi-Shinjuku section of Shinjuku (Nishi means West, though not all town names are so straightforward).
5. Finally we come to a set of numbers, 7-2-6. Notice that we haven’t found any street names or building numbers yet. That’s what these are for…sort of. Towns, like Nishi-Shinjuku, are divided up into a set of numbered sections. The 7 tells us that the building is in section 7 of Nishi-Shinjuku. Unfortunately, unless you have a fairly detailed map on hand, it can often be rather hard to figure out how the sections are laid out (though you can at least get an idea of where you are by looking at the addresses on signs and street lamps). These sections, like Nishi-Shinjuku 7, are further divided up into even smaller areas, which is what the 2 is for. So we’re looking for a building in area 2 of section 7 of Nishi-Shinjuku, which is a part of the city of Shinjuku (Shinjuku-ku) in Tokyo.
6. Finally we have the last number in that set, the 6. It’s the number of the building itself. So all we need to do is find section 7, area 2, and walk down the street to the building between buildings 5 and 7, right? Unfortunately, no. Unlike in the US, buildings in Japan are numbered based on the order in which they were constructed and area 2 could easily contain several streets. So building 6 might be next to building 5, but it could just as easily be across the street or up to several blocks away in any given direction.
So, after all that, the best we can do with the Japanese address is find the right general area and wander aimlessly around until we spot the appropriate building. I have no idea how the person/people who designed this system ever thought it would be a good idea. This is why most stores and businesses in Japan include directions and/or a simple map in their advertisements, as it’s much easier to navigate by landmarks than addresses.
But what if you don’t have directions? Well, if you can hop on the internet, Google Maps usually works pretty well. But that only helps if you have a smart phone (and a very expensive international data plan) or looked up the location before you left your hotel or apartment.
If you think you can handle the language barrier, you can try asking a passerby or shopkeeper. Most Japanese people are very polite and will be happy to help (though they likely won’t be able to speak much English). I’ve even had some of the people I’ve asked for directions drop what they’re doing and spend the next five or ten minutes leading me all the way to my destination. The only problem is that, unless you’re looking for a very well-known spot, it’s quite likely that even the locals won’t know where it is. And, as it’s considered rude to refuse a polite request, they’re far more likely to take a guess (and probably give you wrong directions) than just say that they don’t know.
You best bet is to look for a koban (koh-bahn), or police box. These tiny roadside police stations are very common in larger cities like Tokyo and most small towns have one or two as well. Since crime in Japan is so low, and all koban are equipped with highly detailed maps of the surrounding area, the policemen spend a large portion of their time helping lost people (both Japanese and foreigners) find their way. Language will likely still be an issue but as long as you can show them the address (written in either Japanese or English) they should be able to help. Though it may take them a little while to find your destination on their maps.
And that’s how you find, or at least try to find, addresses in Japan. As you can see, it’s far better to get directions before you leave (either from a book, ad, etc or from Google Maps) and only resort to using the address if you absolutely have to.
By Josiah Lebowitz
Monday, January 24, 2011
You won’t get far in Japan without spotting a few (or a few dozen) vending machines. You’ll find some every block or two in cities like Tokyo and even smaller towns have their fair share. You’ll even find them tucked away in back alleys and sitting on top of mountains. So what’s in all those vending machines? Well, just about anything if you can find the right one. But the most common vending machines by far are for drinks.
Some of these drinks have really strange names (note Pocari Sweat, Energy Squash, and the different types of Calpis [say that one out loud if you don’t get it]), even if the contents are fairly normal (those three are, in order, a Gatorade type drink, an energy drink, and a milk based drink). In generally you’ll find water, some juice, a whole lot of different kinds of tea and coffee, the occasional soda, and some energy drinks. But there are some drinks that are just plain weird like soup in a can (available in corn and tomato varieties) and pancake flavored milk.
At 100 – 130 Yen a piece, they’re not a bad deal if you’re thirsty, especially considering that water fountains are a rarity in Japan. But what’s really nice about these machines is that you can get cold and hot drinks (as indicated by the red and blue labels beneath them). Cold drinks are great during the summer and fall, when many parts of Japan become very hot and humid, and hot drinks are a life saver when you find yourself spending a lot of time outside in the winter. My personal favorites are (in no real order):
Fruit juice mixes (there are many different kinds, most of which I’ve liked)
Barley tea (it’s caffeine free and good both hot and cold)
Royal Milk Tea (a lot like a chai latte; there’s many types of milk tea. but Royal is my favorite)
Green Tea (a Japanese classic)
Hot Lemon (think heated lemonade and you’re on the right track)
As a note, most vending machines have a bin next to them where you can put your “pet bottle” (plastic bottle) or can when you’re done. Often there are separate bins for bottles and cans so make sure you use the right one. If you want to carry your drink with you, just keep in mind that other vending machines and convenience stores are the only places you’re likely to find more bins.
But drinks aren’t the only things you can get in vending machines. There are also vending machines for:
Cigarettes (these are very common, though you need an ID card to use many of them)
Rice (see the above picture)
Small Meals (french fries, spaghetti, cup noodles, etc)
Ice Cream Bars (some in rather strange flavors, which I’ll be talking about another time)
Snacks (chips, energy bars, etc)
Clothing (for businessmen who need to freshen up after staying out too late to get home)
Beer (beer vending machines were actually banned a while back, but there’s still a some around)
Porn (for people too embarrassed to buy it in a store, I suppose)
And those are just the ones I’ve seen. I’ve heard about many other types vending machines as well. Even if you don’t run into any of the weirder ones, trying out lots of different drinks is a fun way to keep cool (or warm) and stay hydrated while touring in Japan.
By Josiah Lebowitz
Friday, January 21, 2011
Japan’s currency is the Yen (often pronounced “en”). Unlike in the US, where dollars are divided into cents, there's no higher or lower denomination of currency, everything is in Yen. At the moment, the Yen is doing very well so $1 is equal to around 82 Yen. Though, during my first stay in Japan, it ranged between 100 and 120 Yen to a dollar. While it’s not always accurate, if you want a quick estimate, just pretend 1 Yen is equal to 1 cent and go from there. You can get Yen at any major US bank (though they may have to order it for you), the money exchange counter in any international airport, or from international ATMs in Japan itself.
There are 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen coins (all of which except the 5 have English numbers) and it's pretty useful to have a nice little stock of them (with the possible exception of 1's and 5's), especially if you plan to get a lot of local train/subway/bus tickets or buy drinks from vending machines, all of which can easily be paid for with a little bit of change. For higher denominations you've got 1000, 2000, 5000, and 10,000 Yen bills. Though it’s worth noting that the 2000 Yen bill is rather uncommon (much like the US $2 bill). In fact, I only saw two 2000 Yen bills during my entire eight month stay in Japan a couple years back. Oddly enough, when getting some Yen from Wells Fargo in preparation for my current Japan trip, I was given a whole stack of them.
Unlike in the US, cash is the preferred method of payment and it's perfectly normal to pull out a bunch of 10,000 yen bills to pay for an expensive item. Since robbery and pickpocketing are so rare, it’s not only safe but very convenient to carry around a large amount of cash to pay for your purchases. How much you should carry depends on where you’re staying and what you plan to do, but I generally keep around 20,000 or 30,000 Yen on me and make the vast majority of my purchases with cash. If you find yourself running low on Yen, all post offices and 7-11 stores (which are extremely common in much of Japan) have international ATMs. Just put in your debit card, push the button for English, and follow the instructions on screen. Note that, while the ATMs themselves don’t charge a transaction free, your bank might.
Buying things in Japan is usually pretty simple. Sales tax is 5% and it’s almost always added into the price shown on the tag or sign, so you always know exactly how much you’re paying. Many larger stores will even refund the sales tax on purchases of 10,000 Yen or more if you show them your passport. Even better, there is absolutely no tipping Japan (be it for restaurants, hotels, taxis, or whatever), so there’s no need to worry about that. Occasionally it can be rather hard to find the price tag on some item or another, and once in a while you’re run into a little restaurant that has all its prices written in Japanese numbers, but those are minor problems. If you ever do have trouble determining the cost of an item, you can use the phrase “ikura desu ka” (ee-kew-rah de-sue kah), which means “How much is it?” If you still can’t figure out the cost, or just don’t have much small change on hand, it’s usually ok to pay with 5000 or even 10,000 Yen bills, regardless of the cost of your item.
If you have an aversion to paying for everything in cash, are making a really expensive purchase, or just can’t find an ATM when you need one, most large and medium sized stores, restaurants, and hotels take credit cards. Visa lives up to its billing of working just about anywhere and my Visa credit card has worked at nearly every place I’ve used it (with my Visa debit card serving as a reliable backup on the rare occasions when the credit card failed). Mastercard is accepted at many of the same places as Visa but American Express and Discover usually aren’t. Just be sure to let your credit card company know that you’ll be traveling abroad first, or they might think your card was stolen and lock it down. And remember that smaller stores, restaurants, and hotels often don’t except credit cards so you’ll still need to keep some Yen on hand.
Besides cash and credit cards, you really don’t have many payment options in Japan outside of prepaid cards for things like trains and buses. Personal checks are rarely used and only the biggest and most tourist friendly stores and hotels will take travelers’ checks (though some major banks will cash them for you), so make sure you plan accordingly and bring enough money (or a suitable ATM card) for your trip.